Radio Licensing Test Removes Morse Requirement

Published: Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Dot, dash faithful say language has ‘mystique to it that will always attract people’

A staccato stream of dots and dashes squeezes through the speakers of the 1,500-watt radio, and Dave Fuseler reaches over to turn up the volume.

Somewhere out there, someone is talking in another dead language.

“Some people fall in love with it,” Fuseler says, listening to the Morse code transmission coming in from another ham radio operator.

All around the Lowcountry, operators like Fuseler are talking about the government’s recent decision to remove the Morse code from tests to get an amateur radio license. It is the end of an era, but it’s not like they didn’t see it coming. The historic code has been on its way out for years.

And nobody is quite sure what to think. Ask 50 operators, Fuseler says, and you’ll hear 50 different opinions.

On the one hand, it is a tradition, a nearly 200-year-old way of communicating that predates even the radio (it was invented for use with the telegraph). And operators who have had their license for decades say it’s only fair that newcomers have to learn what they did to get their FCC license.

But times are changing. It is no longer the international mode of communication, and there are so many options out there that dots and dashes seem a bit antiquated. Fuseler doesn’t bother to translate the transmission coming in. He’s got the equipment to send Morse, but he doesn’t use it much.

In 2000, there were nearly 700,000 licensed amateur radio operators in the United States, an airwaves community with its own lingo: They do a lot of DXing, trying to contact faraway stations; they are into “contesting,” where they exchange information with as many stations as possible in a set period of time; they keep track of their communications QSL cards, which are basically postcards confirming they’ve made contact with someone.

Until now, all of these operators – no matter where they were – had one thing in common. The code.

“Morse code was something that was something we all shared. There was a challenge to it,” says Kenneth Bible, president of the Charleston Amateur Radio Society. “It was intimidating. It was like learning a new language.”

And now, the people who are sorry to see requirements for learning it dropped, say it will go the way of Latin – a language with few uses other than to be learned.

Mel Seyle, president of the Trident Amateur Radio Club, says the code had been the international means of communicating distress since right after the Titanic went down. But in the 1990s, the Coast Guard had switched to more sophisticated modes of communications, and didn’t even monitor for the Morse code for SOS anymore (… — …). That was the beginning of the end.

When the international community dropped the Morse code standard, the United States started easing the requirements to get an amateur license. Time was every operator had to do 20 words a minute in Morse to get a license. That was changed to only the top licenses; others could get lesser licenses with 13- and five-word proficiency.

Some national radio organization call this dismissing of Morse code part of the dumbing down of America.

“A lot of people think Morse code is what separated us from the CBers,” Fuseler says. “But a lot of other folks say it’s dying out.”

Seyle says Morse is too important to be forgotten. It is the most efficient way of communicating; it can be broadcast with a minuscule symbol. It is the only way to reach some places.

The silver lining, Bible says, is that the less stringent requirements to get a license may pull more people into the fold. And some of those people will even pick up the code, required or not.

“I don’t think it will go away just because the government doesn’t require it,” Bible says. “There’s a mystique to it that will always attract people.”

Reach Brian Hicks at 937-5561 or